Books of 2016 - Non-Fiction

Continuing the series on my books read in 2016, today I'm focused on non-fiction:

Better than Before: mastering the habits of our everyday lives, Gretchen Rubin. I stepped back from reading ‘books designed to make me a better person’ a few years back, after they all started to sound like one shouty “you’re shit” sermon. This was a good entry way back in. Rather than being about troubleshooting your entire self to try to fix your flaws, this book is about learning to work with your natural tendencies. Rubin is very smart and this deeply researched books lets you have your quirks while still making small, positive tweaks to your life.

Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I read this after hearing Jenny’s interview with the author. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to get off social media and in this book, I found it. The thesis is that an ability to work deeply on difficult problems is one of the scarcest skills in the modern economy and that those who develop that capacity essentially have a superpower. (because we all want to have superpowers like comic book characters, but anyway..) The lack of attention given to the other forces that shape our lives and careers (class, race, gender, politics) bothered me, though I tend to have that reaction whenever a wealthy white man tells me what to do. The ideas in both these books have stuck with me, though I wished they’d both ended with a task list. so that I could easily return to the key arguments and action points.

Pivot: The only move that matters is your next one, Jenny Blake. I bought this mostly to support Jenny whom I know a little. It’s one of the best career books I’ve ever read. It’s smart, strategic and very deeply thought out. I walked away from it with a to do list, which is always a sign of an actionable book. She documented the book writing process on her podcast and blog too, which give great insights and tips for writers. As with Newport’s book, the one thing I would have liked was a little more interrogation/reference to one’s privilege (or lack thereof). To write a career book in 2016 without referencing the cultural/economic/racial/gender dynamics of the working world seems to side step a key point, in my opinion. But still, a great read!

All the Single Lades: Unmarried Women and the rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister - Boy, does this seem different after a Trump victory?! Started in 2015, finished int 2016, this is a historical, sociological, cultural history of the single woman as a political, economic and cultural force in the US. It’s a good companion piece to Kate Bolick’s Spinster, a memoir of making a life of one’s own. This is academic in the best way, blending deep reporting and extensive research. There were moments when it felt like a slog - reading an academic text after a long exhausting week in work is not always easy, but it’s full of fascinating insights and stories. Fave story: origin story of these two. And importantly, it pays much more attention to race, class, economics than most do. Traister’s reporting on Hillary is among the best there was too: this on how single women were going to be the deciding factor proved depressingly prophetic, and this on her loss.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo. Another book that everyone has read. I, like many thousands of others I’m sure, bought this impulsively on my kindle while sitting in the midst of a very cluttered, chaotic living room praying that outer order would be the solution to all life’s problems. Turns out, order and less stuff is a solution to at least some of life’s problems. I’ve never been a big “stuff” person. I travelled more than I shopped, and moving around a lot meant that I didn’t see the point in investing in things until the last year or two. Now, I certainly own things that don’t bring me joy (nail scissors, shoe polish, step ladder) but I am much more deliberate about what I buy and what I keep. As a book, this is  funny when it’s not meant to be and there are certainly moments when she ventures into the absurd (my socks are not mad at me for being rolled!) but it impacted how I live my life, which is not a bad success metric for a book. Taffy’s profile of the woman behind the phenomenon is great too.

In Therapy, Susie Orbach. Found via Jessica’s newsletter which recommended the BBC radio series. Maddeningly there’s no way to download the podcast (or none that I could see in my cursory search), so I bookmarked the page and will probably never to return to it. Instead, I bought the book. I’ve done a lot of therapy, so seeing the inside of the therapist’s thought process was not particularly revelatory to me, but the care and intelligence she brings to her work would renew your faith in humanity. (There are a lot of bad therapists out there kids, chose carefully) Her final call to action, that we bring the lessons and insights of psychotherapy into the policy/societal conversations was very wise, as was her description of a certain kind of 20-something hardworking, type A, digitally native girl who lives with mid-level anxiety. It’s a sweet, quick read.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm. I read this after I joined the #WLclub and did not like it. Turns out I’m not that interested in the relationship of Hughes & Plath. I read it during a particularly intense work period so I wonder if it’d be different it I read it another time but no, not that interested.

In the company of women, Grace Bonney. I already mentioned my love for this book here so there’s not much more to say. It’s beautiful, thoughtful and smart and would make a great gift.

P.S. Check out my fiction picks too.